Friday, February 26, 2010

Fundies, Scholars, and the Hyper-Protestant Fear of Works

Steven Anderson's recent diatribe got me thinking about a few things. You would be hard pressed to find a preacher more opposed to works-salvation: he thinks those who believe that repentance is necessary to be saved are damned to hell. Believers should be sorry for their sins, just as they should be baptized, attend church, and do good works, and should abstain from alcohol and not watch TV, and should avoid male gynecologists like the plague -- but none of these, insists Anderson, contribute in any way toward salvation. Those who believe so are not really saved, because they are relying on a measure of their own effort for salvific purposes, the ultimate blasphemy.

Anderson defends his doctrine as follows: "Easy-Believism is not giving people license to sin, it is giving people license to be saved without jumping through a bunch of hoops. People should repent of their sins after they are saved, but whether they do or don't, they are still saved."

In a sermon preached on 2/24/08, "Godly Sorrow Worketh Repentance", Anderson takes repentance head on, addressing the problematic passages which imply that repentance is necessary for salvation. The only text in the bible that explicitly connects "repentance" to "salvation" is II Cor 7:9-10:
"Now I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because your grief led to repentance... Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death." (NRSV)
According to Anderson (though he tolerates only the King James translation), since Paul is addressing believers in Corinth who have already been saved, their spiritual salvation cannot be in question; the "salvation" or well-being of the church is in view. The word "save" has different meanings depending on context: Peter cries for Jesus to "save" him in Mt 14:30, but from drowning, not spiritual damnation. The evangelist speaks of the necessity of "enduring to the end to be saved" in Mt 24:13 -- saved from worldly torture (Mt 24:9), that is, not eternal damnation in hell. And as far as Lk 13:5 goes, "Unless you repent, you will perish" -- the trump card brandished by so many of Anderson's foes -- the context makes clear (to Anderson) that "perish" has nothing to do with going to hell, but dying in the same way the Galileans did at the hands of Pilate (Lk 13:3). "Perishing" is not being contrasted with everlasting life in this passage any more than "salvation" is speaking to everlasting life in II Cor 7:9-10.

So it's clear that Steven Anderson is as easy-believist as they come, and I would have never guessed he could be outshone in this regard. But as I mentioned a few days ago, there are members of his church who have begun claiming that he actually hasn't gone far enough, on the basis of his method of door-to-door soul winning. When converting people to the gospel, he requires them to say the sinner's prayer. Isn't that unnecessary? Isn't this prayer (like repentance) adding works to salvation? That's precisely what these critics have been accusing Anderson of (behind his back), and they've accordingly (also behind his back) been dropping the sinner's prayer from their soul-winning strategy when they go knocking doors. Anderson got wind of this and is bullshit with rage.

[You can listen to Anderson's hour and a half long defense of the sinner's prayer, but it basically boils down to this: He doesn't believe the prayer is necessary for salvation (contrary to the accusation), only that it is a necessary part of the soul winning strategy in order to help ensure that converts are really taking the step of putting their faith in Christ. "Calling upon the name of the Lord" isn't even always possible (especially for the mute), and the texts of Rom 10:9-10 and Mt 12:37 seem important for Anderson as public demonstrations of one's commitment, not absolutely necessary requirements for salvation.]

The lesson here is that works-righteous phobias crop up in ways you'd never expect. But it would be a mistake to dismiss them as a fringe madness common only among KJV Baptist fundies. Biblical scholars can be just as guilty as these pulpit-pounding screamers -- and in fact I think they're worse. The idea that human belief is a form of works-righteousness seems to lie at the heart of certain preferences for the subjective genitive reading of pistis Christou, the "faithfulness of Christ". I have already explained why this reading is a house of cards. What's fascinating is that if it owes to fears that putting one's faith in Christ is a work, then scholars have outdone the fundies. Neither Steven Anderson nor his critics would ever dream of claiming that belief, or faith itself, is a work.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Steven Anderson Tears His Flock a New One

Readers of this blog know that I follow the sermons of Steven Anderson with some regularity, and enjoy citing his most memorable moments. I believe he's just outdone himself with the harshest sermon of his career, "Calling Upon the Name of the Lord". Anderson is furious (to put it mildly) at certain members of his church who have begun claiming that praying the sinner's prayer is adding works to salvation, and he proceeds to tear them a new orifice right from the pulpit. The part you have to watch is the seven-minute segment 24:45 - 31:35. Anderson gets so mad that he kicks the pulpit, smashes things to the floor, and calls his flock a bunch of lazy parrots who don't know anything and should keep their mouths shut until they read the bible cover to cover. This is one pissed preacher.

Israelite/Judean Land Ethics

Philip Esler gives a glowing review of Ellen Davis' Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, calling it "a triumphantly novel and successful work of scholarship that on the all-important question of our relationship to the earth allows vast sweeps of the Old Testament to give vent to its deep intelligence and profound moral insights that were always available if only someone asked the right questions". He summarizes the agrarian outlook:
"An agrarian approach insists that we have been given the land to care for, in an attitude of reverence and humility before it... It stresses that we must use the earth sustainably, by not compromising its means of sustaining itself. It sets up the ideal of the small-holder closely connected with the land and farming in a diversified way in sharp contrast with the large-scale industrialized farming of agribusiness, heavily dependent on fertilizer and single cropping, remorselessly driving down the nutrient levels in the land and leading to depopulation of rural areas. The particular point of connection (an extremely rich one) between agrarian ideas and the Old Testament is that its texts comprehensively assume an agricultural setting where small farmers on the difficult and often marginal lands of the Judean hill country had to work in closest harmony with the cycles and rhythms of nature to survive. In addition, the relationship of ancient Israelites to God presupposes his granting them the land while standing behind its proper use. One of the most impressive features of this book is how much of the text Davis relates to this setting and to this outlook."
I wonder how Davis relates all of this to the eschatological scenario. Edward Adams' trenchant work, The Stars Will Fall From Heaven, demonstrates that the Old Testament looked for a literal destruction of the earth (even if not as blatantly as later Jewish apocalyptic and the New Testament). And if the earth is destined for destruction, why would ancient devotees of Yahweh bother going out of their way to preserve and protect it? But as Adams points out (against Wright), hopes for the earth's literal destruction didn't presuppose its complete destruction nor that it could be disdained or neglected; these hopes usually went hand-in-hand with expectations for the earth's recreation or miraculous transformation -- in other words, for a new earthly future. Eschatology wasn't so much about cosmic matter being dumped, but recycled; creation was holy and respected. While it would be a mistake to characterize ancient Israelites as environmentally conscious, I agree with Adams that their world-view needn't necessarily be taken as an obstacle to environmental ethics. And if that's the case, then Davis' agrarian approach to the question of land ethics appears to be on (pun) solid ground.

I will have to read this book.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Michael Goulder and the Resurrection

Mark Goodacre has a short clip of Michael Goulder from BBC Radio. Goulder is explaining how he gave up on Jesus' resurrection and his Anglican orders. A story that apparently had much to do with this was the account of Susan Atkins, who had been a follower of Charles Manson. When entering her prison cell for the first time, and faced with the brute reality of a life sentence and contemplating suicide:
"She saw a door in the wall and heard a voice saying, 'Open, Susan' -- in her imagination of course -- and inside there was a brilliant light, and in the middle of the light there was a figure. She said, 'And it was Jesus.' This story comes in an introduction to the psychology of religion [and] gives a good parallel to the vision element [of Jesus' resurrection]. And it seems quite enough to say that the disciples had the experience of seeing Jesus because they were under extreme tension."
This is a reasonable parallel, but I don't think it adequately accounts for the disciples' belief in a resurrection. Visions of Jesus, without an empty tomb, would have resulted only in a belief that he was vindicated and assumed into heaven. But taken together with the empty tomb, they could have plausibly yielded the resurrection belief.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Whip It: Confused Anachronism or Fervent Nostalgia?

I called it the former in my review, but not all is terribly clear in Drew Barrymore's roller derby film. The story of Whip It! seems deliberately set in the '80s and peppered with careless anachronisms from the '00s. But you could look at it the other way: a story set in the '00s with a nostalgic '80s tone to it.

I've yet to read a single review that takes a side. The Real to Reel critic says, "I defy you you to figure out the time period of this movie," and leaves it at that -- probably the smart thing to do. But I wouldn't mind getting more closure if possible, and so I watched the film again and made a list of items which favor an '80s setting and an '00s setting. I've also noted certain comparisons to Shauna Cross' novel Derby Girl which the film is based on, and which is unambiguously set in the '00s.

In favor of an '80s setting:
* Today's roller derby -- the grass-roots feminist incarnation reborn in the year 2000 -- doesn't involve as much brawling and bruises as portrayed in the film. There's some of that today, but not to the degree found in pockets of roller derby that were revived throughout the late '70s and '80s, which harked back to the "bloody derby" of the '60s.

* The songs heard in the actual narrative are from no later than the '80s. Bliss and Pash listen to The Ramones' "Sheena is a Punk Rocker" ('77) on the car radio, and they sing & dance to Dolly Parton's "Jolene" ('74) on the radio in the Oink Joint. Bliss' mother and sister sing to Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All" ('86) on the car radio. (In Shauna Cross' novel, "Jolene" is never mentioned, and the song heard by Bliss' mother and sister in the car is not by Whitney Houston, but Celine Dion from the late '90s. There's a lot of '00s music in the book -- The Hot Hot Heat, The Killers, etc. -- not found in the film. The only exception is the song played on Oliver's phonograph, on which see below.)

* The abundance of tank tops points to an '80s setting: Corbi's boyfriend, Bliss' father, the guy in the shower with Pash, and many others. (In Shauna Cross' novel, I didn't catch any reference to tank tops.)

* Bliss tells her mother to stop "shoving '50s womanhood down her throat", in response to her mother's claim that roller derby won't help her get into college or find a decent husband. This implies that Bliss' mother came of age in the '50s, which would make Bliss a teen of the '80s. (In Shauna Cross' novel, there is no remark about '50s womanhood and Bliss is clearly a teen of the '00s.)
In favor of an '00s setting:
* At the first roller derby game, the emcee announces: "Some of you may remember watching derby on TV back in the '70s, but it was reborn right here in the heart of Texas, a true Austin tradition." As I mentioned in my review, roller derby was reborn in Austin in the year 2000, not the '80s.

* When Oliver tells Bliss that it looks like she's wearing a Stryper shirt, she says, "Stryper? Yeah, '80s Christian heavy metal." This could be a reinforcement of the present -- as if to say, "Yeah, of course; this is the '80s: Christian heavy metal". But we later learn that the shirt was her mother's from many years ago, putting the '80s in the distant past.

* Oliver has a CD of his band's music. CDs came out in the mid-'80s, of course, but the plastic casing of the CD-ROM looks distinctly '00s, like the dime-a-dozen used by everyone these days for home recording purposes.

* Common internet use makes an '80s setting impossible. Bliss surfs Oliver's website at school, and Bliss' father uses Google (born in '98) to search for videos of Bliss and roller derby.
In favor of an '80s and '00s setting at the same time:
* Oliver has a phonograph and zillions of record albums, plus his shelf on the left contain cases that look like audiocassettes (not CDs). It's true that he's a musician and that some audiophiles today continue to prefer record players, but they're in the minority, and vinyl is hard to come by. Audiocassettes, of course, are completely passe. On the other hand, the record which Bliss plays is by Little Joy -- the song "Unattainable", which is from '08. So this item counts toward either time period.
In other words, the film is a mess. But if we have to choose, I think it makes more sense to see Whip It! as an anachronism set in the '80s, rather than a nostalgia set in the '00s. The '80s items are very deliberate (Barrymore didn't mistakenly throw in tank tops, old music on the radio, and a mother mired in her '50s values), while the '00s cues are so commonplace and things we take for granted that they just seem like careless injections -- so much that I didn't even notice them on first viewing. The scenes involving the internet were probably carried over from Shauna Cross' novel by sheer necessity. How else was Bliss supposed to discover that her boyfriend was cheating on her miles away? How else was her father supposed to see her in action on the skating rink, thus prompting him to reconsider allowing her to play in the league championship? And let's not forget what Whip It! is really about at heart: Drew Barrymore's love for '80s films, themes, and settings, which she was evidently trying to portray.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Apocalyptic Jesus: A Figure for the 21st Century?

An article by Helen Bond, The Relevance of an Apocalyptic Jesus, has drawn some attention on the biblioblogs. In her opinion:
"The apocalyptic Jesus is no longer 'other' and remote, but ethically aware, in touch with the planet, and right on trend. Preaching imminent cataclysmic disaster is no longer a sign of weirdness, but a sane response to scientific research. Rather than a misguided fanatic irretrievably stuck in the first century, Jesus starts to sound rather modern. If any Jesus can save the world in the early twenty-first century, it is surely the apocalyptic Jesus."
This doesn't necessarily depend on conservative, millennial Christian views, according to Bond, but also the views of "ordinary rational men and women with little time for 'organized religion' and all its trappings". Based on his confession in The Historical Christ, Dale Allison would probably agree:
"I argued that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet... Anyone who knows me might well wonder how this could be in any way a personal projection. I am not looking for the end of the world anytime soon... Yet I would be deceiving myself were I to imagine that my Jesus was nothing but the product of brutal historical honesty. I wrote Jesus of Nazareth during an exceedingly miserable period in my life... [and] my chief consolation was hope for a life beyond this one where things might be better, which means I was comforted by a historical Jesus who seemed ill at ease in the world as it is." (p 17)
I too suspect that the apocalyptic Jesus is less alien than we often insist. Like Bond and Allison I remain fully convinced that Jesus was a (deluded) apocalyptic, but have become more cautious about professing indifference to apocalyptic thought. After all, I enjoy good science fiction and fantasy, including Doctor Who (mentioned by Bond), which often deal with "apocalyptic" threats to the world and cosmos. There's evidently a side to me, however secular, that warms to certain apocalyptic themes.

In the end, of course, what matters is where the evidence leads us, more than an ability to assure ourselves that we're not making Jesus in our self-images. And the evidence has always pointed strongly in favor of an apocalyptic Jesus. But being receptive to historical figures whose views oppose our own is often at least an indication, if not a sure bet, that we're on the right track (and avoiding autobiography in favor of biography). Bond is probably right that the "alien" character of apocalyptic hopes isn't as alien as assumed since Schweitzer. At the same time, I think it's an overstatement to say that the apocalyptic Jesus is well suited for the 21st century. Few secularists will be persuaded by this just because we have problems like global warming!

(H.T.: Mark Goodacre and Jim Davila)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Biblical Studies Carnival L

The fiftieth Biblical Studies Carnival is up on Duane Smith's Abnormal Interests.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Whip It! A Gratifying Underdog Sports Film (For a Change)

I was expecting to write a scathing review of Whip It! when I went to see it in the theater last October, based on the qualified critical praise that it's so wonderful despite being predictable and cliche-ridden. Disclaimers like that sound suspiciously apologetic, and having come of age in the '80s I'm painfully aware of how pathetic underdog sports dramas really are. But it turns out the critics are right for a change. Although Whip It! has scenes practically copied-and-pasted out of films like The Karate Kid, it breaks with enough conventions in subtle ways that add up to surprisingly satisfying piece of cinema. It's about a Texas girl, Bliss Cavendar, whose mother forces her to compete in beauty pageants until she stumbles across roller derby and falls in love with rough housing on the skating rink. Taking the name Babe Ruthless, she finds herself leading a team of losers to sudden victories, and even stunningly to the league championship. The question is how this story works where The Karate Kid, Hoosiers, and Rudy make you want to smash the screen. Most reviews offer evasive commentary on this point, so it's worth spelling out the line items.

The first is the subject matter. I've always associated roller derby with white trailer trash, and make no mistake, this film largely confirms that stereotype (the inclusion of an Afro-American notwithstanding). To whatever degree roller derby's come back in the '00s owes to third-wave feminism -- aspects of this post-feminist empowerment and "being your own hero" are unfortunately projected back onto the film's '80's milieu -- it remains at heart what it always was: an opportunity for coarse, tattooed he-ladies to mash and smash each other in the name of sport. But the film's genius lies in running this athletic curiosity parallel to another southern subculture which is ten times as odious: beauty pageants. Bliss' mother is basically a pageant fundamentalist, constantly reliving her childhood by squeezing her daughter into the glove of '50s womanhood. Compared to the ghastly process of teenagers being made to look like polished manikins, roller derby suddenly doesn't look so bad, and given its brutal and uninhibited nature even becomes oddly liberating. A sport in which illegal hits are encouraged as much as they draw penalties has a rather "indie" feel to it, and Whip It! does in fact play like an indie version of a coming-of-age sports film.

The second is that the underdog team is allowed to be true to form, and lose in the end when it really counts. Had the Hurl Scouts won the league championship, this review would have been less than kind. Barrymore seems to understand that if losers can be moved to overcome themselves in remarkable ways, the formula of complete victory doesn't wash. Bliss gets in some amazing whips toward the end of the game, but they don't work miracles like the Karate Kid's last-minute crane kick which won him the tournament, or Rudy's quarterback sacking which got him triumphantly carried off the field. Most refreshing is the way both teams go out completely self-satisfied -- the Hurl Scouts' chanting their usual "We're number two!" -- without any maudlin or falsely uplifting melodrama.

Which brings me to the third point: the film has the wisdom not to take itself too seriously. There are many places I was expecting the maudlin to kick in but it didn't happen. The scene where Bliss tells the Hurl Scouts she can no longer be a team member is a case in point. She has just run away from home after a mean blowout with her parents, been disowned by her best friend, and now exposed as underage by the captain of an opposing team; she's truly suffering. But her teammates don't dwell on sympathizing, and Smashley even suggests that if Bliss can't play she can be the team's mascot -- to a chorus of uproarious laughter. Seeing these ladies laugh their asses off in the face of Bliss' misery is oddly believable. It's little moments like these which set Whip It! above the usual sports films which are so overwrought.

Which isn't to say the film doesn't have its share of heavy moments, for it does. But they're kept off the skating rink and in the messy turmoil of life where they belong. The reconciliation between Bliss and her best friend is genuinely affecting, and that between her and her mother even more so -- strangely tender, softly but intensely played by both actors. It's Ellen Page's best scene, and proves wrong the critics who insist she's only good for sarcasm and sass. Bliss Cavendar isn't Juno. She's deeply vulnerable and in the end at least willing to try seeing things from her mother's alien point of view, and given the unspeakable nature of beauty pageants that's saying a lot.

The soundtrack is one of the film's major strengths. Aside from .38 Special's "Caught Up in You", there is thankfully no '80s music to suffer through. If there's one thing Drew Barrymore has a taste for, it's decent music (anyone who doubts this should listen to the Celebrity Playlist Podcast she did with Ellen Page), and the most memorable track plays over the film's most memorable scene: Bliss and her rock-singer boyfriend break into an indoor swimming pool, dive in, and hold their breath for long periods as they somersault, kiss and undress each other, all to the tune of Jens Lekman's "Your Arms Around Me". For me it's the best scene, and one of the most special musical moments I've seen in a film for a long time.

As for my favorite scene that takes place on the rink, it's the Hurl Scouts' turning point. They are playing against the Fight Attendants and losing as they always do, when Coach Razor, completely fed up, rips out a page of his special plays and gives it to the coach of the Attendants, actually paying him 40 bucks to run the play against the Scouts. When the Attendants put the "stampede" into action, every single Hurl Scout gets slammed on her ass not knowing what hit her. The sight of these hopeless losers sprawled on the skating rink and seeing stars is to me immensely entertaining, as is Razor's retort to the inevitable curses and traitor-accusations heaped on his head: he simply threatens to give away another one of his plays if the Scouts don't start reading them and hauling ass. Coaches who stop at nothing to motivate underdogs are a dime a dozen in films like this, but I've never seen one actually coach the enemy in order to shaft his own team.

Incidentally, a word about the teams. We're told at the beginning that there are five teams in the Austin League, but historically roller derby was reborn in Austin in the year 2000, not the '80s. After the major shut down in '73, there were several attempts to revive derby from the late '70s through the '90s, and pockets could be found in northern California, the midwest, the northeast, and Canada -- but not Texas. Only this past decade did a true grass-roots feminist incarnation of the sport take wing in Austin. Whip It! is thus a confused anachronism. Drew Barrymore evidently set the story in the '80s out of nostalgia (I'm glad someone has fondness for the '80s, because I sure don't), but it's based on scriptwriter Shauna Cross' experience of post-feminist derby when she played on a Los Angeles team in 2003.

Anyway, the five teams are as follows: (1) the Holy Rollers (the undefeated team in white and grey plaid uniforms, led by Juliette Lewis' bullying character Iron Maven), (2) the Black Widows (looking glitzy and superhero in jet black), (3) the Fight Attendants (in pink and orange, and to whom Razor acts the turncoat by giving his special play), (4) the Hot Tamales (in red), and (5) the Hurl Scouts (the underdogs in green, particularly Page's Babe Ruthless, but also Drew Barrymore herself playing the wildly adorable Smashley Simpson who throws more illegal hits -- and gets smacked down in turn -- than everyone else combined). I've no idea how historical these teams are, but if they're really from Austin they're not from the '80s, and if they're from the '80s they're not from Austin.

Whip It! isn't Oscar-winning material, by any means, but given what we've come to expect from underdog sports dramas, it's a very enjoyable story about a girl who just wants to break out of her life prison and have fun.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.